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Building on her own recovery: 27 years in AOD

Building on her own recovery: 27 years in AOD

Registered nurse Heather Pickard

Empathy drives Heather Pickard’s passion for pushing against the stigma around misuse of alcohol and other drugs, and supporting addiction recovery.

She particularly has compassion for the shame nurses and midwives, as well as other health workers, can feel about having a sensitive health issue, and the reasons they may hide their misuse of alcohol and other drugs.

At 26, five years into her career as a registered nurse, Heather’s health deteriorated and she withdrew from nursing to focus on her recovery from alcohol misuse.

‘I had developed some sensitive health issues, which certainly reduced my capacity to feel like I could practise in a safe way for myself and others,’ Heather said.

‘I had an incredible director of nursing who assisted me to see that it was time to remove myself from a working life for a period of time…that old DON was my ally until she died in recent years.’

At the Nurses and Midwives Wellness Conference to be presented by ANMF and NMHPV on 7 May, Heather will be one of three nurses sharing their insights into recovery from sensitive health issues.

Heather’s recovery was her focus for the next four years and she spent the next five years living in Canada. During that time, she worked in a different field but never lost sight of her love of nursing and desire to return.

‘I do say to people that I work with nowadays, never underestimate the time it takes to get a truly solid base back in your life after you’ve had to deal with a sensitive health issue,’ Heather said.

Heather joined Monash Health as a coordinator of withdrawal services, feeling robust and solid in herself and her capability as a practitioner. At Dandenong Hospital (before it merged into Monash Health) she established a drug and alcohol liaison team which trained hospital staff and worked with patients presenting at emergency departments who had alcohol and other drugs issues.

She has since spent more than 27 years supporting people to overcome issues with alcohol and other drugs misuse.

Heather is CEO of the Self-help Addiction Resource Centre (SHARC) which provides residential support for people in recovery and family services and develops workforce capacity in the alcohol and other drugs sector.

ANMF (Vic Branch) has provided significant funding to SHARC for Oxford Houses, where several nurses have been supported in their recovery from alcohol and other drugs. In a neat circle, SHARC provided the haven for Heather’s recovery.

Heather is also Board Chair of the Nursing and Midwifery Health Program Victoria (NMHPV), a free, independent and confidential nurse-led support and counselling service for Victorian nurses, midwives, and nursing and midwifery students.

The then Nurses Board Victoria and ANF (now ANMF) founded NMHPV in 2006 and for its first three years Heather was CEO. Now buoyed by Andrews Government funding for the last seven years, the NMHPV continues to be focused on supporting nurses and midwives to deal with issues around alcohol and other drugs, and mental health challenges.

There is a clear link between the two, as the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report Alcohol, tobacco & other drugs in Australia shows.

In the latest report, which includes data from the COVID-19 pandemic, 22 per cent of people with high or very high levels of psychological distress reported lifetime risky drinking compared with 16 per cent with low psychological distress. For single occasion risky drinkers, 36 per cent reported high or very high levels of psychological distress compared with 22 per cent of those with low psychological distress. Twenty-five per cent of Australians were drinking at risky levels on a single occasion at least monthly.

In a culture which puts alcohol front and centre of socialising and relaxation, how do you know how much is too much?

There are safe alcohol consumption guidelines, Heather said, but a deeper touchstone is asking whether one’s life is being negatively impacted.

‘If the pain of what you do is greater than the relief you get from the drink or the drug, then the balance is gone,’ Heather said.

‘If your life shrinks and you’re not able to follow your dreams and do the things you want to do because you need alcohol or other substances before you start your day, then we’re really in the misuse category.’

At the Self-help Addiction Recovery Centre, clients are asked what their life would look like if their alcohol or other drug issue was dealt with, and how much energy and self-love they have for change.

Just as at NMHPV, it’s an approach based on seeing addiction as a health issue, steeped in compassion and hope.

Register for the Nurses and Midwives Wellness Conference.

Contact the Nursing and Midwifery Health Program Victoria for free, independent and confidential counselling and support with issues around misuse of alcohol or other drugs.